Jerusalem. Warm Beer. Cricket. I’ve seen,drunk and heard them all and – well, they don’t do anything for me really. Except cricket, which I played from the age of five. And I like the rather violent, post West Indies version of the game than the allegedly gentle, more ‘English’ game beforehand. Does that make me unEnglish ? I think not. I consider myself to be a patriotic Englishman. One thing I’ve never felt since I was very, very young is British.
I am from Cumbria, from a windswept town with substantial scots and irish communities. The England of my youth is an England of wind, strong tea, the bookies, of sports and working mens’ clubs. You won’t find it commemorated in any musical works of the heavyweight patriots : Shakespeare, I expect, had little to say on the subject of the anglo-scots dialects and their almost complete incomprehensibility.
I’ve also lived in London, where I’ve spent a lot of time. London is a global city, a city that has an uneasy relationship with it’s host nation in may ways. But England isn’t unique in having a cosmopolitan capital. My experiences in London – including close relationships with people of all races, colours, beliefs – I also consider fully part of “my England” too.
And here lies my problem. Where do I fit in to the ‘green and pleasant land’ ? It’s always been a source of some mystery to me. If I see references to the “essential” England (actually its usually “quintessential”) I see kings, warm beer, cricket on village greens, cucumber sandwiches, all drowned in Elgar (the worst bits). What I don’t see is a place to fit me in, unless it means being some kind of servant to the real English..
There seem to be two types of observations about national identity. One is modestly reliable – given to inaccuracies only by virtue of generalisations – and the other is synthetic, and usually less informative altogether.
Broadly speaking the former is about habits, and day-to-day, bread and butter behaviour. The English drink tea : the Italians are good cooks, and so on. Although hardly universal laws, there is a significant element of truth to them, objectively evident when people are travelling. Inasmuch as they possess what might be termed moral content, these are generally restricted to matters of taste.
There is then also a tradition of trying to go beyond the observation of habit and into the realm of what you might term the spiritual and philosophical components of identity. There is a great tradition of this – in European culture at least. It was evident that, from the moment of the creation of nationalism and nation states in the late 18th/early 19th century, some felt the need to spiritualise ethnicity – to make it nothing short of a metaphysical fact.
I can’t help thinking that such a quest is and always has been a complete waste of time. It is an intellectual endeavour that – at best , is of dubious value, and at worst has created some of the most astonishing nonsense ever written. Take, for example, all the volkische theories that the Germans immersed themselves in after unification in 1870.
These theories were an attempt to embellish, in semi-theological terms, the fact of German nationality. It was all completely pointless. German ethnicity was never really a problem. Germans never really doubted the fact that they were German. Germans were from the area of the Germany, spoke German and followed what might be termed German day to habits. Most importantly, (thanks to Napoleon), most Germans thought of themselves as German, and not something else.
You would think that would be sufficient, but for some it clearly wasn’t. A complete edifice of monstrous nonsense was constructed to show how the Germans were not just people who were good with machines and drank beer, but were born to be masters of men. You’ve heard it. The Germans were endowed with noble characteristics, naturally,that were unique to them…. Germans were not like ‘Western’ europeans, but more ‘Eastern’ (whatever that meant – it seemed to be a reason for not having elections )– and they believed in ‘freedom’ of course, much moreso than anybody else. As usual. And they were even physically different to everybody else, a unique race, the Aryans, a race threatened by Jews (in fact, astoundingly, one of the first proponents of this theory was a lunatic Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain).
This nonsense surely reached it apotheosis when the Germans, according to Himmler, were descended from a race of Himalayan Giants. 70 years previously such nonsense would have been been the kind of belief reserved to small groups of people on the fringes of sanity. After a few decades of volkische nonsense, it all made sense.
And here we come back to our green and pleasant land. Is English nationalism making a similar error ? In recent times there has been an extended search for ‘Englishness’. It’s come about, one assumes, from the rise of so-called “celtic” nationalisms and the transfer of real rights to the celtic nations, with no such privileges for the English. There is also a need to consider the possibility that there could be – in the none too distant future – a ‘Britain’ that consists pretty much only of England. So at least one of the reasons for the pursuit of Englishness, it would appear, seems to be the need to meet a particular political challenge.
But what of this search ? What form is it taking ? Well, so far, it seems to be all literary. And at this stage, it is not extravagant in scope, fortunately. In fact it seems to be a kind of quest for a verbal bottle in which to neatly contain ‘Englishness’. But is this pursuit a sensible one ? Indeed is it of any value at all ?
Well, I think in one sense there is no doubt that the English are like the Germans. The English suffer no doubts as to their English ethnicity. They don’t confuse themselves for anybody else.I think that this is true for all white English, and for most second and third generation immigrants the only doubt is the extent to which they identify with their parents and grandparents. The identity of most 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants – at least in my experience – is nonetheless English first.
To which we should say – I think – that that should be enough for a progressive, English Nationalist response to England’s problems. Like the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, the English are the victims of ‘Britain’ too. Victims of its backwardness, its inherent dislike of popular democracy, and all the destructive intellectual inheritance of a huge empire obtained and maintained for the most part by the use, or the threat of, prodigious and sustained levels of extreme violence.
But if it isn’t enough – which I doubt – what of the efforts to turn Englishness into a metaphysical fact ? Have these made any headway into finding what to put in the bottle ?
Well, for one I don’t think that they have. The problem is that a lot of the prevalent dogmas of British nationalism have been overlaid onto English nationalism.